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Since American community college students are more likely to be older, commute to school, work part-time, and care for dependents than their public four-year and private nonprofit counterparts, they need access to more flexible pathways that meet their needs and move them toward a credential. Community College Online, a new report released today by New America’s Education Policy Program, shows that information technology has the potential to support community college students through their degree paths, and recommends a series of policy reforms, including provisions for providing year-round federal financial aid to students and allowing them to mix competency-based and seat-time courses.

Public two-year colleges are often the only or last chance for a college education for the 6.8 million students attending them. Some students enroll in a couple of classes or a short-term certificate to gain new skills, some enroll to obtain their associate degrees, and some enroll with the intention to transfer to a four-year institution. The open access of community colleges is one of America’s greatest postsecondary strengths, but also one of its greatest challenges. While almost anyone with minimum qualifications can enter a community college and pursue a postsecondary credential, few will actually complete.

Community College Online examines technology-enhanced education in community colleges and presents several case studies showing how the public two-year sector can use technology to improve content delivery, student support, credential attainment, and transfer. By implementing such technological innovations, all community college students should be able to take two courses a semester year round, including during summer session. This 2+2+2 model would be much faster than the slow progress many students are making.

Community College Online makes several federal, state, and institutional policy recommendations that help promote this flexible learning model for students. These recommendations are:

  • Change financial support so it meets the needs of today’s students by providing year-round federal financial aid and allowing federal financial aid to flow to students who mix competency-based and seat-time courses.
  • Create a competitive federal funding stream dedicated to community colleges through making community colleges a funding priority in existing grant competitions and creating a new $18 billion grant program solely for community colleges.
  • Promote articulation agreements and common course numbering among public institutions within the state so that credits more easily transfer for students.
  • Collect better data on online students to understand their outcomes.
  • Provide professional development opportunities for faculty so that they are supported when designing online and blended courses.
  • Provide opportunities for faculty to create and adopt Open Education Resources to ensure students have access to no- or low-cost textbooks and course materials.

Community college students should not have to struggle through a system that was designed around face-to-face education at a physical location. Instead, they should be able to select and blend course modalities that suit their schedules–whether it be face-to-face courses, hybrid courses that blend online with face-to-face, or competency-based courses. They should also be able to access online student support services such as advising and tutoring.The 2+2+2 model is achievable, and there are many policy levers that can help get us there.

Read the full report here.